Is the latest Labour party controversy a sign they have completely lost their way? According to Isobel Adams, things don’t look good.
Credit: Elliott Stallion via Unsplash

Have Labour lost it?

By Isobel Adams

 Writer Isobel Adams looks at comments recently made by the deputy of the Labour party, and explores what the wider implications for the party are.

Last month, Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, suggested that the London Metropolitan Police should “shoot your terrorists” first and “ask questions second”. Rayner received extensive criticism for her remarks, which many deemed a dangerously misinformed attempt to capitalise on the “dog-whistle” political issue of crime and security, said in a lowly attempt to claw back some support Labour lost at the last general election. This is all, of course, in the shadow of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, in which Labour were accused of being soft on the issues of crime and security. This assessment, if believed, may have contributed to their election defeat in 2019.

Yet, in her potential bid for support, Rayner seems to emulate the very thing she and the Labour party supposedly stand to oppose: Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Johnson is infamous for his capitalisation of so called “soundbite” politics designed to provoke a public reaction and attract attention, as opposed to the meaningful discussion of issues that could advance or change policy. Adoption of this kind of politics arguably has the potential to drive away Labour supporters who have in recent years looked to their party to rise above inflammatory or downright false taglines commonplace in this post-Trump political world. Do Rayner’s remarks, and by extension, the party as a whole, seem to condone an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach? And if so, what does this mean for Labour’s future?

“Do Rayner’s remarks, and by extension, the party as a whole, seem to condone an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach?”

Rayner, who has served as deputy leader of the labour party since 2020, made these comments when speaking on Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast last month. Following a loud, presumably shocked, audience reaction to her words on anti-terrorism police conduct, Rayner paused: “Sorry – is that the most controversial thing I’ve ever said?” 

There are two potential interpretations to be drawn from this episode. The first is that Rayner is genuinely unaware of the implications of her words. However, they are at the very least tone-deaf when placed in their proper context, namely the death of Jean Charles de Menezes at the hands of counter-terrorism police officers. De Menezes was shot dead by police on 22 July 2005 after he was mistakenly identified as a suspected terrorist. At the time, the Met police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, told a press conference that De Menezes was “challenged and refused to obey police instructions,” while Scotland Yard claimed his “clothing and behaviour at the station added to their suspicions.” Both claims were later found to be false. No officers involved were punished, and although De Menezes’ loved ones eventually received compensation, the family believe they have never truly received justice. Patricia da Silva, cousin to De Menezes, spoke of the devastation herself and her family members still feel over his death. “This happened 16 years ago but the outrage is still the same. I don’t know if one day we will have justice, but in my view, to be honest, I don’t think so.”

Left-wing grassroots group, Momentum, have criticised Rayner for her comments and pointed out that it was an approach like the one she advocates for that led to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. Meanwhile, former Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, tweeted: “Is Angela suggesting a mandatory death sentence for suspected (but not convicted) ‘terrorists’?”

The second interpretation of the episode is that Rayner was fully aware of the implications of her comments, and that she hoped to provoke a wide public reaction. They could be seen as in-keeping with Labour’s desire to distance themselves from the policies of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn has himself spoken out against “shoot to kill” policies, suggesting it is a “dangerous” policy that can “often be counterproductive.” Rayner’s comments, therefore, seem to signal to voters a vastly different approach to crime and security than that of her predecessor.

“The second interpretation of the episode is that Rayner was fully aware of the implications of her comments, and that she hoped to provoke a wide public reaction.”

This would, in the process, perhaps garner support for Labour’s revised and more hard-line stance on crime and security, a traditionally popular political position. However, in trying to appeal to one support base, who wish to see a return to Tony Blair’s “New Labour” crime and security policies  – “tough on crime, tough on causes of crime” – Labour may serve to isolate another. Namely, working class communities and people of colour who time and time again pay the price for this approach to law and order. 

Arguably, Rayner’s comments serve to distance groups who have come to feel deprioritised under Keir Starmer’s leadership. And yet it is these groups that are opposed to any association with Johnson’s Trump-esque government. This would be an adept opportunity for Labour to rise above inflammatory political tactics designed solely to garner attention, with little regard for whom they may offend in the process. Instead, Rayner’s remarks precisely emulate the rhetoric of Johnson.

Therefore, it seems that in trying to disassociate themselves from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, deemed too left wing to appeal to a majority of voters, Keir Starmer’s Labour run the risk of bypassing the desired centre ground and wading into pure right-wing territory. This will only lose them the support of many long-standing Labour voters. The party’s intense focus on a narrow-minded approach to regaining power at the next election, even to the extent of emulating the politics of the Conservatives, may in fact come back to bite them.


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